"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 23 January 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

No Cerveza, No Trabajo



In the last few years of the 19th century, the U. S. armed forces had a few problems: The Army, for example, was running a desertion rate that approached 33 percent, while alcoholism and suicide were prevalent in both services. The nation's lawmakers got busy fixing things, finally creating quality measures like the one requiring — good call — that enlistees have a working knowledge of the English language. And then came 1898: Someone stored oily rags near the water heater, and William Randolph Hearst declared war on Spain. The Navy, freshly under the giddy influence of A.T. Mahan's declaration that world power grew from the domination of the seas, had been in a shipbuilding frenzy: It was pretty much ready.

The Army, on the other hand, pretty much wasn't, and President William McKinley called for volunteers. Six weeks later, he had 125,000 of them. Except that their supplies mostly got lost in the rail system, and the 17,000 soldiers who eventually sailed to Cuba — on a hastily borrowed fleet of civilian coastal steamers that were "unpleasantly suggestive of the Black Hole of Calcutta" — went to a summertime war in the tropics with heavy wool uniforms, under the leadership of a general variously described as "obese" and "a floating tent." A force of 5,000 eventually attacked at the small village of El Caney, where — after many delays, and with 1,385 casualties — they defeated a Spanish force of, whoops, 500. The floating tent was too sick to show up. "Another such victory as that of July 1," wrote an American reporter who witnessed the battle, "and our troops must retreat." Two days later the tent, apparently not sick anymore but strongly considering the general retreat suggested by the correspondent, had a clever inspiration: Fake a position of strength and demand a Spanish surrender. What the hell, the Spanish commander figured. And that was that.

And now, a hundred years later, America's "magnificent sort of warrior culture" is dying, maybe even dead. Stephanie Gutmann carefully explains this in a (weirdly well-received) book with the clever title The Kinder, Gentler Military, neatly decorated with a cover photograph of a (long-obsolete) hand grenade tied with a pansy-ass pink ribbon around the middle. Why, for apparently the very first time in history, aren't we ready for war? Because that traditional warrior culture has been beset by distaff fifth columnists, brought weakly toward its knees by, perhaps you should take a seat, "the reason that dare not speak its name." (Psssst: It's political correctness. Don't tell!)

"It's no fun, anymore," the mysterious Pilot A tells Gutmann, floating around on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. "We can't be men." He's not kidding: You can't even browse through Penthouse in the ready room, anymore, before you take off to bomb Iraq or something. And alcohol is no longer allowed on warships, so there goes that avenue of release.

Well, you say, but there's always the whores, right? Not anymore, friend. Now, the "feminized" Navy, the "nurturing-to-the-point-of-infantilizing" Navy, the "smothering Mommy who corrects your language, who takes away your booze, who slaps you if you gawk at a woman or tell a dirty joke" — that Navy — has placed the whores off limits, and this time they really mean it. And so a great deal has been lost, way on down there in the very ancestral roots of the institution: "The place where the restrictions seem most incongruous is in the Western Pacific: home of ports-of-dreams like Singapore, Guam, and Pusan, South Korea — the place where your dad had his most exuberant fistfights and was entertained by the most exuberant and exotic ladies of the night."

And a million servicemen heave a gentle sigh in the soft embrace of memory. Ah, yes, the portside Korean prostitutes who cater to the lower enlisted!

As you've probably already figured out, Gutmann has written an impressively horrible book. It's horrible for several reasons, though, and the easy one is the writing. Here she is on her arrival aboard the aircraft carrier: "Here are all the reassuring and exhilarating accoutrements (sic) of war... Alone in the center of this expanse of shimmering tarmac sits the six-level imperious tower, bristling with antennae and radar dishes and other communications equipment."

Later, there's a speech: "'No army will lay itself out in the desert for us to come get them again,' thundered former Marine commandant Gen. Charles C. Krulak... 'And it is into this maelstrom,' he roared, 'that the Marine Corps will deploy!'... 'Ultimately,' he boomed..." And so on, with poor Gen. Krulak thundering and roaring and booming like a machine about to burst apart.

But the real idiocy on display in The Kinder, Gentler Military grows from Gutmann's unswerving — you could probably call it worshipful — willingness to believe everything she hears, as long as it's coming from someone who allows as to how he's, pardon me there little lady, a real old school type of warrior fella. And then, better yet, she carefully discards all contradictory evidence before drawing conclusions.

Next: It's Groundhog Day all over again

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